National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Obama

The three distinct phases of Barack Obama’s reaction to the wildly-disseminated YouTube snippets of sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, took him from the depths to the heights over the last two weeks.

His “three steps to redemption” not only carried this observer’s opinion of Obama from the pits to the pinnacle, but so, I believe, it has done for his presidential aspirations.

When Obama first reacted to the clips, it was a panic reflex. His impulse was to disassociate as much as he could from his old pastor friend, to kick him overboard, to repudiate him and knock him out of his marginal advisory role in the campaign. Obama used strong language to renounce what Wright said, and the clips of his reaction were played non-stop over the Palm Sunday weekend.

Frankly, his reaction was disgusting, lacking any compassion or loyalty to someone he’d written so warmly of in his book, where he’d cited the seminal influence of Wright as a mentor in his earlier days. For me, it exhibited a lack of personal character in the face of political pressure. Any support I had for his candidacy evaporated.

But then came Phase II of Obama’s reaction, the transition from fear and revulsion to his already-famous speech on religion and race on March 18. Appealing to the virtues of embracing diversity, he did a far better job than Mitt Romney did when he tried the same sort of thing earlier in the Republican primary process.

That was because of the different audience he was speaking to. In Obama’s case, the audience was sympathetic Democrats, willing to hear the case made for the roots of Rev. Wright’s anger in the civil rights struggles of the past. Romney, rather than appealing to more enlightened and progressive Republicans, sought to propitiate the Christian right element in his party in a way that would be doomed to fail for any Mormon.

Both were great speeches. One worked, one didn’t, because of the difference between who the speaker embraced internally, and externally, as his audience.

But despite the rave reviews given to Obama’s speech, it was still equivocal, still reflecting the effort of a man fixated on the goal of electoral success over core principles. He relegated Wright’s anger to the distant past, and even equated it with racist comments by his white grandmother, as if black anger and white anger associated with race could ever be considered equal.

Because he sought to pacify black clergy who were mortified by his rejection of the Rev. Wright, as well as to hold onto his appeal to the middle and middle-right voter, the speech was hollow and unsatisfying.

Then came Phase III last week. Over Easter weekend, Obama went to the Virgin Islands for a brief R&R, and I would estimate some serious soul searching.

When he came back, his approach to the Rev. Wright question had changed decisively. He said more than once, in effect, “He’s my pastor, I love him. I don’t agree with what he said, but deal with it. End of story.”

This was the kind of succinct moral strength I would have liked to see all along, but nonetheless, it issued forth from him.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton made the serious error of stepping over a line she wouldn’t cross at first, and tried to capitalize on the Rev. Wright issue to her advantage. That fell like a lead balloon, and contributed to a steep one-week drop in the polls in her “positives.”

Obama claimed the moral high ground by tossing placation of the political right overboard, instead of his pastor. Clinton was tarnished, and meanwhile, the violence heated up in Iraq again, reminding us that by November, John McCain’s relentless defense of Bush’s Iraq war policy could make it a shoe-in for whoever opposes him.

Rev. Wright’s United Church of Christ denomination then reminded us all where Obama got some of his backbone from. In a full page ad in yesterday’s New York Times, reprinted with permission by me in my Falls Church News-Press today, the U.C.C. is unapologetic in affirming its role as a church whose founders came over on the Mayflower, “of open ideas, extravagant welcome, and evangelical courage,” adding, “We support liberty in our pulpits, just as we affirm the individual conscience of our 1.2 million members to agree, disagree and wrestle with life’s biggest questions in a spirit of love.”

I’ve been a member of the U.C.C. since I was in college and chose to enter a U.C.C. seminary. Once again, in the heat of controversy, they’ve made me proud.

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